I’ll start with a spoiler: Cassian Andor dies in the end. You already know this if you’ve watched Rogue One, which is—in my opinion—the best Star Wars movie next to The Empire Strikes Back. Andor, Tony Gilroy’s Rogue One prequel, shows how Cassian turns into the complex, dark, fascinating character who co-leads the mission to steal the Death Star plans. The dramatic tension in Andor, then, comes not from uncertainty with Cassian’s fate, but from uncertainty about how he gets there. Don’t fret if you haven’t seen any other Star Wars content; unlike some other Star Wars shows, Andor needs no context.
Here's the real reason you should click over to Disney+ and watch Andor now: it’s a compelling character study of insurgent warfare. The image most people have is of the hate-filled, sadistic insurgent bent on violence and destruction. But Cassian is different. When he is violent, as when two off-duty security guards jump him in the first episode, we can tell that he doesn't actually want to be violent, even if he clearly knows how. Rather, we are left wondering how this devil-may-care, down-on-his-luck man whose only cause is himself and his family ever gets wrapped up in a galactic rebellion against the Empire.
His transformation teaches us a lot about how insurgencies operate. Gilroy and other Andor writers have obviously picked up a bit of Mao, Galula, and Trinquier along the way, at least indirectly. Andor captures three themes that are essential to insurgent success. In an age when we are dealing with right-wing protoinsurgencies and gun violence on a large scale, it's probably worthwhile to take a look at ourselves through the eyes of a rebel. Andor gives us three ways to do that.
The first insurgent theme in Andor is stealth. By definition, insurgents wait till the last possible moment to stick their heads up, because government firepower is the name of the game. In the critical episode 3 scene where Cassian and Luthen Rael deal with corporate security trying to execute an arrest warrant for Cassian, Cassian asks Luthen, “Who are you?” Luthen frowns and says, “That's the wrong question. The right question is how much time do we have to get out of here.” Cassian's response highlights the importance of trust for insurgents trying to avoid the powerful hand of government: “Why would I go anywhere with you?”
We talk about insurgent networks when fighting rebellions, but we sometimes forget that these networks—networks designed to maintain stealth and mitigate risk—are built on interpersonal trust. Cassian’s pathological distrust of others is actually what makes him such a great rebel.
We often think of insurgents and rebels as die-hard believers in a cause. Some may be, but Andor shows how complex insurgent motivations are. Some fight for ideological purity, but also for food, for money, for revenge, or even for the love of violence. Andor shows rebels with all these motivations.
Andor conveys how government repression, as distinct from a cause, is the root cause of many insurgent motivations. One dyed-in-the-wool ideologue, Karis Nemik, observes that “the pace of repression outstrips our ability to understand it.” In Andor, as in real life, insurgents provoke a government backlash in order to bolster their cause, knowing that—somehow—added repression will spark a multitude of reasons for people to join the fight.
One of these varied reasons can even be disdain. Cassian asks Luthen, again in the pivotal arrest warrant scene in episode 3, “To steal from the Empire? What do you need?... They’re so proud of themselves, they don’t even care. They’re so fat and satisfied, they can’t imagine it.… That someone like me would ever get inside their house, walk their floors, spit in their food, take their gear.”
Repression gives the repressed somewhere to focus every grievance. Society coalesces as a result. Shopkeepers, thugs, and housewives alike join in the prearranged signal (rhythmic banging) as corporate security surrounds Cassian and Luthen. This kind of grassroots organization is hard to achieve without a perceived threat. Maarva Andor says it best to two corporate guards as their comrades surround her son: “That’s what a reckoning sounds like. You want it to stop, but it just keeps coming. It’s when it stops; that’s when you really want to fret.” Insurgents have no better friend than the deadly embrace of a repressive government.
The final insurgent theme in Andor is desperation. For insurgents, this is not hopelessness, but a transfer of hope to future beneficiaries, reserving none for themselves, yet clinging desperately to whatever means are available to them to outlast the government. Insurgents are masters of shoestring success, of snatching small victories from the jaws of certain defeat.
Luthen Rael exemplifies this desperation, and as Cassian’s character shows in Rouge One with ample clarity, at some point Cassian also adopts this sense of utter desperation. Luthen tells an informant in one of the later episodes, “I burn my life to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see.” Seeing how Cassian develops this same air of desperation is a fascinating study. People are generally resourceful, but insurgents take resourcefulness to another level, and seeing how Cassian’s experiences provoke this desperation at each morbid turn shows just how it happens for insurgents, too.
Luthen also coaxes and prods others, including Cassian, to develop this desperation. He does little to solve the dilemmas that push others closer to supporting the rebellion, even when he provokes these dilemmas himself. As Luthen tells one somewhat uncertain supporter of the cause, “If you're not willing to risk your conscience, then surrender and be done with it.” The best insurgent recruiters are those who give recruits no choice but to fight; governments often underestimate just how unwilling and desperate most insurgents are (which is why governments often overreact to insurgent attacks).
Cassian Andor’s development from devil-may-care nobody to ill-fated hero of the rebellion is important to consider for all those who want to understand how the disaffected in society move to violence. It’s entertaining to those who want to watch with popcorn and intriguing to those fascinated by its intricate, sophisticated story. Watch the trailer. Watch the first few episodes. I wasn’t sure about Andor after episode 1, but after episode 3 I was hooked.
Nathan W. Toronto is a data strategist and scholar of civil-military relations. He is the author of How Militaries Learn: Human Capital, Military Education, and Battlefield Effectiveness and Rise of Ahrik, a military science fiction novel. He edits and publishes Bullet Points.